When anyone mentions season 7 of “The Vampire Diaries” I get a cold chill down my spine. A warm feeling collects down my throat and I can feel the acid burning my esophagus. Suffice it to say… I am not a fan. I am not a fan of any season of TVD after season 2. They inspire in me a hot and burning rage that would put Klaus Mikaelson’s murderous rampages to shame. That is with the exception of “Hell is Other People.” An episode that I did not only think was bearable with but a slight tinge of pain, but that I actually thought in some places was pretty good. So that got me to thinking: Why is this?
Author Warning: This article contains optimism and a great deal of praise, but fear not I have not been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by a robot… or maybe, that’s what they want you to think.
“Groundhog Day” meets “The Vampire Diaries” might not immediately be what you’d consider the recipe for a good episode, yet it is exactly this it accomplishes. We start with Damon on a battlefield during the American civil war. Tired and wounded he saves Henry and they escape together. This is an opening that immediately caught my attention. It’s atmospheric, it’s grasping and it immediately introduces an important conflict between Damon’s more heroic side, what he can be at his best, and his darker side, what he has been at his worst. This sets up the stakes quite well. As, throughout the episode, he will alternate between a path that drives him further into darkness and one that may finally allow him to grow past it.
That Time the Writers Remembered Character Arcs Exist
It is also part of a larger exploration throughout this episode of Damon as a character. Strong characterization, while never having been the strongest part of the series, was something that the early Vampire Diaries certainly had. Along with plot and tension… and logic. Yet, after season 3, many character arcs were largely abandoned or wasted (such as in season 4 when Damon says he doesn’t care about being human anymore all of a sudden) in favour of ascribing everything to Elena. This episode however, to my great surprise, brought that back with a very clear arc that plays out throughout it.
That Damon struggles with staying on the good side is no surprise to anyone, nor that he has a good side to be on, despite often pretending otherwise. But in the good old days of season 2, and to some extent season 3, there was a bit more nuance to this. A word that seemed to have been forgotten for many seasons afterwards. Damon was presented as a character who had that good inside of him, but who still did bad to deal with his own fear of failure. And who, above all, refused to accept responsibility for his bad actions. This was something that drove his desire to blame Stefan for his vampirism back in season 1, thus conveniently pawning off all his bad actions on his guilt-seeking brother, and drove his murder of Jessica back in season 2.
Throughout much of season 4 and 6 this is not really aluded to, instead they come with the brilliant efficiency of making every single one of his actions because of Elena. Sadly, this episode still somehow managed to bring Elena into it despite her being a motionless brick for the entirety of the season and Nina Dobrev not even being on the show anymore. That’s dedication to quality right there. Sub-standard quality. But let’s ignore the Nina-shaped elephant in the room for a moment and take a cue from that old mantra: If life gives you lemons, squeeze them into the eyes of the nearest asshole and have a laugh to forget about your troubles. Because fortunately this episode mainly deals with a return to the more complex aspects of his character.
It turns out that, way back during the civil war in an attempt to get leave to get back home to his brother, Damon accidentally caused a minor massacre, as have we all, I’m sure. One he, and Henry, covered up and never spoke of again. As Damon points out in the episode (because sadly even in one of the best episodes of the season the writers can’t let subtext remain subtext since they trust their audience about as much as they’d trust a sex addict in a brothel) this was the first time he’d ever gotten blood on his hands (something well-illustrated by this episode’s MacBeth-inspired imagery) and what was his response? To shirk responsibility for it. Not only that but when his hallucimother confronts him with this fact what does he say? “They were deserters. They ambushed us. I didn’t come here looking to kill anybody.” He puts the blame on them. He refuses to accept responsibility.
Later in the episode fake-Stefan confronts him with the same thing. It is clear Damon does feel bad about what happened, but instead of accepting his guilt he pretends it didn’t get to him at all. And he, of course, deflects with humour and insults. He refuses to deal with his feelings as he has for over a hundred years. Hiding them behind sarcasm and pretending he doesn’t care.
The Duh Vinci Code
This is highlighted by the strong focus of this episode, with it being limited to Damon’s perspective for the most part and his single goal of going home. We see Damon go from confusion in part 1 to understanding to sheer determination later in the episode. He quickly comes to believe that, if he cracks the puzzle of getting home to fake-Stefan, he can go home and escape the phoenix stone. This means that throughout this part he is focused only on one goal. But this determination also highlights to the audience how he is completely and utterly missing the point.
Damon is approaching this whole mess as a purely intellectual exercise. As if it were a code to be cracked, a puzzle to be solved, an obstacle the be victorious over through sheer intelligence and inventiveness and drive. And this focus allows him to completely avoid his own feelings in favour of this mission and this drive. So once again he refuses to deal with his feelings of guilt. He tries to find a rational solution, a way of escaping without dealing. Damon is focused on solving a problem, rather than dealing with the issue. That is until the end when this all climaxes.
That Damon misses his mother so much is a bit odd considering her relative unimportance in the story for much of the early seasons of the show, and though this does make the scene with his trapped mother weaker, the tragedy inherent in things left unsaid to a dead loved one means it’s still a powerful moment and the underlying issue remains solid. At the end Damon finally breaks down and admits to his mother, and to himself, how he really feels about her and about his life. He admits that he had three chances to tell her the truth, but he failed her each and every time. He tells her he’s sorry. In other words he deals with his feelings rather than rationalizing them or shrugging them off. He takes responsibility for the times he acted poorly towards her. And most importantly, he admits that he failed her.
With failure having been so central to Damon as a character ever since season 1, specifically his fear of failing others’ expectations, it was refreshing to see that dealt with here (especially after seasons where it was tangental at best).
The whole thing is also a wonderful microcosm for Damon’s vampirism and his issues with his brother. As many of you may have picked up on, Damon kinda hates Stefan for turning him into a vampire (only promising him an eternity of misery after being forced to complete his transition). He believes his immoral actions are a result of his vampirism, and due to this combination of facts he feels he doesn’t need to take responsibility for them. He can simply pawn them off on his little guilt-collecting bro like an old shirt with a hole in it. Similarly he pawns off his responsibility for the massacre to the deserters themselves.
His behaviour throughout the series, in regards to Stefan and his vampirism, has often been witty one-liners, deflections and pretending he doesn’t care about anything or anyone. And, what do we see when fake-Stefan confronts him about the massacre in this episode? He throws out a witty one-liner as a deflection and pretends he doesn’t care.
Just as he doesn’t accept responsibility for his horrible acts during his life as a vampire, he doesn’t accept responsibility for the massacre, nor for what he did to his mother. So when at the end he allows himself to feel what he feels about his mother, accepts his responsibility for his actions towards her and admits that he failed her, this can be seen as a major reversal of who he is. The first step in finally dealing with all these other things as well. As a result this episode encapsulates Damon as a character perhaps more than any other in the series and moves his arc forward in the most substantive way the show ever has.
And More Good Things!
This episode also brings back several other aspects of the previous story. It relates Damon joining the army to pleasing his father (something Damon actively denies he tried to do in season 1’s flashbacks, mind you, which fits him very well), it brings back Henry (very fitting considering that Henry himself is arguably a symbol of guilt since Damon ended up ruthlessly killing him in season 1) and the fact that Damon was in the civil war (something we first found out about in season 1). These elements create a sense of continuity and consequence that, sadly, much of the rest of the season, lacks.
It also manages to combine the more serious drama going on, such as Damon dealing with his guilt, with some fairly dark humour. Seeing Damon’s “I’m-so-fucking-done-with-this-shit” face when entering that house for the bazillionth time was a delictible treat. As was that grenade suddenly rolling underneath him before his day resets. Maybe I just enjoy seeing people suffer… (alright, I definitely enjoy seeing people suffer) but Damon’s palpable frustration with the whole mess and some of his dialogue as a result is an episode highlight. And since Damon’s determination to avoid his feelings and seek a rational solution is so important to this episode, his frustration in not finding one resonates on a thematic and character level as well.
The Weak, the Bad and the Downright Retarded
This episode does also have some weak points and so rightly deserves some of that most abundant resource: criticism, which I have been just itching to provide all article. My fingers were all twitchy, my face was turning blue, you don’t even want to know what I did to the toilet. Let’s just say: You wouldn’t like me when I’m happy.
The interlude where we think Damon is free only to find out that he’s still in the stone, while admittedly establishing the final twist and the difficulty of the escape, is mostly a pointless waste of time that accomplishes little for the character’s arc in this episode. It also breaks the otherwise strong focus of the episode.
Some of the episode’s attempts at old timey dialogue are ridiculously stereotypical and unimmersive. Like Henry calling his girlfriend a “peach” really? It sounds like dialogue lifted from a 12-year-old’s school play rendition of “Gone with the Wind.”
There are still several times where the episode does not trust its audience, such as when they feel the need to put in a scene where Stefan explicitely says that Damon will never submit to his suffering. They might as well have had a five minute break in the middle where the writers make us a diagram out of straws.
And the ending twist is utterly absurd, you’d have to have several lobotomies and a severe case of dementia to even for a moment believe those characters would actually all stay dead.
But overall this episode was a nice surprise. A bucket of flowers in the middle of the deserted wasteland that is post-season 2 “The Vampire Diaries.” And so really my biggest criticism of this episode is not to be found in its confines, but that they didn’t follow up on anything they pulled off on it in any way that’s notable in the episodes after.
- The Originals’ Deadliest Sin – Behind the Black Horizon Review
- What Character Arc? – Why Damon’s Transformation into a Human Was a Betrayal
- The Silence Before the Storm – Was Episode 2 the Best or Worst of Season 8?
Copyright: The images used in this article are screenshots taken from the episodes of the show. We are allowed to use them under section 107 of the US Copyright Act of 1976. The Vampire Diaries belongs to the CW and Alloy Entertainment.